April 09, 2003
Steven Pinker - confusing school with learning?

Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate (on page 222 of my 2002 BCA/Penguin paperback edition) says this, of schooling:

Children don't have to go to school to learn to walk, talk, recognize objects, or remember the personalities of their friends, even though these tasks are much harder than reading, adding, or remembering dates in history. They do have to go to school to learn written language, arithmetic, and science, because those bodies of knowledge and skill were invented too recently for any species-wide knack for them to have evolved.

The central point Pinker is trying to make here is a true one. Stick a clutch of babies on a desert island with lots of food and drink readily available, and come back in ten years time. By then they will have their own language, crude yet effective, and they'll be speaking it fluently and grammatically. What they will not be doing is reading or writing in it, because that is not "natural".

But there is more to human nature than cognitive skills, as Pinker tells us at length, elsewhere in this same book. It is in the nature of children – little children especially – to pay attention to adults and to copy them and to learn from them and even to hero worship them, their parents especially of course. It is in the nature of children to tune in to the culture around them. If their model adults and their wider culture includes arguments and propaganda in favour of learning to read and write, and help to do these things, then they'll pitch into such tasks – naturally. Even though these tasks are, in another sense, not "natural" at all.

To put it another way, the artificiality that a complicated mind makes possible is a natural part of being a human. A skyscraper is as much a natural phenomenon as a beaver dam.

And all of that means that going to "school" is only one of several ways to learn to read and write, and not necessarily the best one by any means. Especially when you consider how bad at plain old teaching so many schools are these days.

As lars says in his comment on this:

There are children who learn to read without lessons. Surrounded by a world with words everywhere, where people get around by reading signs and know what to buy by reading the labels on packages and where the information from the words on the video games helps to play the game and where people enjoy reading books and newspapers and magazines, learning to read as one is interested in learning it happens. Having someone to read things to them, when they can't read it for their self (books, games etc), to ask if this letter makes what sound, to think up and play games about letters/words with when the interest is there- helping a child learn in ways that are interesting to them- I think that is the way to 'teach' reading. Though, I don't think of it as 'teaching'- that seems like a concept laden with authority that can get in the way of learning. I think of it as helping to learn.


But let's give Pinker the benefit of the doubt, and accept first, that he's not really thinking about the home-schooling, home-learning, school-schooling debate. Let's allow him an elastic meaning to "going to school", and agree that if by learning to read and write "naturally", we mean children learning these things without anyone or anything laying them in front of them or making good noises about them, then indeed, children do indeed have to "go to school".

But if that's what is meant by "school", then there is more than one way to school your child, and your local school may be one of the worst.

My understanding of literacy teaching is that children who depend only on their school to learn literacy skills are right away at a near crippling disadvantage.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:23 PM
Category: Home education